The roots and branches of truth

Image from James Reid, The Life of Christ in Woodcuts

James Reid, The Life of Christ in Woodcuts

James Reid’s The Life of Christ in Woodcuts (1930) is barely mentioned in the scholarly literature about wordless books, perhaps because it was derived from a written text and is not a completely original work. Nevertheless, it has much in common with woodcut novels of its era. Moreover, it further underscores the possibilities for multiple readings not only of visual but also verbal narratives, including the Bible.

“In the beginning was the Word.” The opening sentence of the Gospel of John is among the Bible’s most well-known language. Less familiar are the gospel’s final words: “But there are also many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” John’s admission that he left things out of his account may indicate that he recognized something the creators of wordless novels also understood. Words, for all their power, sometimes get in the way. Though debates over how to interpret the Bible have fueled centuries of conflict, the open-endedness and adaptability of biblical narratives is one of their strengths. In other words, they are like trees, rooted in eternal truths but always growing and branching out in new directions. Additional detail about Jesus’s life might prune the branches, so to speak, and limit the meaning of what we already have or lead to even more disputes. 

Another area of overlap between Reid’s book and contemporary wordless novels is the emphasis on social justice. Empowering the poor. Gender equality. Leaving no one behind. Peace. Nonviolence. Personal sacrifice for the common good. Love for all God’s children. These are messages from the life of Jesus that show up again and again in wordless novels. New Testament villains—Herod, Judas, Pontius Pilate—also reappear as fascist thugs, greedy factory owners, and the indifferent public.

Juxtaposing images in other woodcut novels with Reid’s helps us see how they might all stem from the same tree. For example, the depiction of Jesus approaching Simon and Andrew in their fishing boat calls to mind the opening scenes (especially the third image) of Lynd Ward’s Gods’ Man, where we see the main character bringing his boat ashore out of a stormy sea while staring into the sun. He, too, could have been an apostle. Instead, he chose the path of selfishness.